orno Osteria + Bar is exactly what the East Side needs. The chain restaurants around the Rookwood shopping centers and the mostly ethnic spots clustering near Hyde Park Square are fine as far as they go, but Forno represents something more elevated. One of the city’s First Families of Food — the Pietosos of Nicola’s and Via Vite — have brought upscale-casual Italian cooking to the neighborhood. And, as far as I can tell, it’s been an immediate hit.
Via Vite chef/owner Cristian Pietoso and his wife Amanda leased the space in East Hyde Park that formerly housed M Wood Fired Oven. They gave the place a minimal facelift and opened as Forno Osteria + Bar in the early fall, serving what they describe as “Italian comfort food.” The chef is Stefano Carne, who spent four years working his way up to sous chef at Via Vite before collaborating with Cristian to develop the new Forno menu. Their intention was to offer “the most authentic dishes possible,” Cristian says.
I dined there as part of a foursome on a warm Thursday night when it seemed too hot to take one of the sidewalk tables, so we sat inside. The restaurant is one large dining room with an open kitchen showcasing the brick ovens and a large bar. They kept the pizza ovens from the building’s stint as M and even named the restaurant for them — “forno” is Italian for oven.
We tried as many items as possible, beginning with salads and appetizers, and traded tastes of everything. My choice was Cristian’s Gazpacho ($12), a chilled vegetable purée — orange in color, reminding me of the gazpacho you get in Spain — with a large serving of crabmeat in the middle of the bowl. It was the consensus favorite of the first courses among my dining companions, but I thought the unseasoned crabmeat overwhelmed the soup, and it was too much to eat before a big Italian meal.
I preferred a companion’s heirloom tomato salad ($12), an unconventional preparation with avocado on toast, topped with sliced tomatoes. The Sicilian Salad ($11) of arugula, shaved fennel, orange and anchovy, however, was topped with a heavy portion of shallot vinaigrette. We also tried the Pomodoro in Gelatina ($6), one of almost a dozen dishes highlighted as “historically significant items to my Italian heritage,” according to a menu note from Cristian. The tomato spread came with crostini and was well-flavored with olive oil and basil.
It was a little hard to know what to order next, since in addition to a selection of red- and white-sauced pizzas ($11-$18), the menu lists six pasta plates and five meat- and fish-based entrées. After hearing our waiter’s suggestions, we ended up with two pizzas and two entrées, plus one of the “sides for the table.”
Our friend loved his sausage and caramelized onion pizza; my husband’s pizza was called Quattro Stagioni or the Four Seasons of Italy ($17 each). The latter had one-quarter each of prosciutto, mushrooms, black olives and artichokes as toppings. I thought the pizzas were somewhat lackluster; the crust was too soggy for my taste, but the toppings were good.
I tried our server-recommended bone-in Pork Loin Milanese ($24). It was a large, breaded, pan-fried chop finished with capers, white wine and topped with chopped, roasted cauliflower. The meat was tender and the capers added a welcome tang, but the dish was too rich for me. More to my liking was my friend’s Branzino “Acqua Pazza” ($27), a medium-sized piece of skin-on fish in mild tomato broth with chopped mussels.
For our shared side, we had Roman-style artichokes ($8), which were cooked to a perfect tenderness, but, again, the vegetables were bathed in oil.
After all that, you’d think I would skip dessert. But we took one for the team and split two of the five dessert offerings. The lemon tart ($8) came topped with meringue, not whipped cream, a detail that always scores points with me. The filling was a just-right combo of sweet and tart on a nicely firm pastry. The basil pannacotta ($7) may have been my favorite dish of the night — not too sweet and flavored subtly with the fragrant herb, like one last whiff of summer. These creations of pastry chef Adelaide Colombano, who also came over from Via Vite, were definitely worth the indulgence.
We had drinks before and during the meal — a selection of craft beers on tap ($7) and a rye whiskey cocktail called Nuova Moda ($11). With the entrées, we each had wine from the extensive, heavily Italian list.Cristian said that with this restaurant he wants to “bring people to Italy without having to put them on an airplane.” So far, his labor of love seems to have plenty of willing passengers.
Go: 3514 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday; 4-11 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-9 p.m. Sunday.